The science policy forum held Saturday afternoon at the AAAS meeting in Boston took place on relatively short notice, so much so that the event did not appear in the program for the conference. It was only by around midday on Friday did flyers announcing the event start appearing throughout the Hynes Convention Center, which was more than sufficient to attract an audience hungry to learn more about the science policies of the top two Democratic candidates. The room the forum was held in, which can hold several hundred people, was filled to capacity, with people standing in the back and sitting in the aisles for the full 90 minutes.
The two campaign representatives appearing at the event were very different people. Tom Kalil is a former Clinton Administration official who worked on technology policy and who currently serves as a science and technology advisor to the chancellor of UC Berkeley. Alec Ross is a self-described “social entrepreneur” who is the vice president of One Economy, a nonprofit that works to bring broadband into low-income homes and provide technology training. Of the two, Kalil seemed better versed in the details of science issues than Ross, although Ross’s position in the Obama campaign is as an advisor on “technology, media, and communications”, and not science per se.
The event was moderated by Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times science reporter, who started with a list of questions of her own after the two campaign representatives gave some opening remarks (neither of which made any mention of space). After some questions on topics ranging from nuclear power to bioethics, she finally brought up NASA:
Who does your candidate view the future of NASA? Specifically, do they see manned Moon shots as the best use of resources that might be used for NASA’s other mandated functions?
Kalil answered first:
Senator Clinton does believe it’s necessary to maintain an emphasis on human exploration as part of the NASA program, but she also believes that we need to have support for the Earth sciences program, and has specifically talked about the need to increase investment in our observation capacities so that we have the continued ability to monitor the impact that climate change is having. So, I think the issue is that we’ve not had a balanced program. NASA has been given a large unfunded mandate by the administration and as a result, the earth sciences and the space programs have been cut.
Ross then answered the question:
I’m not allowed to scoop anything, so anticipate some specific policies from the Obama campaign specific to NASA and specific to space exploration within the next month. It’s interesting, because this space has gone largely neglected over the last eight years and it’s in the far periphery of the dialogue in science in Washington right now. I think the importance of examining these policies is not just for the sake of figuring out what is next in terms of exploration but, frankly, as Tom has said, figuring out how it can solve intractable problems here, that we’re contending with in the United States and elsewhere related to climate change and the like. Watch your newspapers for more to come on this.
Dreifus followed up by restating her question, with a focus on (and perhaps bias against) human space exploration:
But, seriously, do you think Moon exploration, I’m sorry, Mars exploration, is the best use of resources? I didn’t really hear an answer. But, surely, there are a lot of people in the scientific community who do not.
Senator Clinton addressed these issues in a speech that she gave in October of 2007 and you can go there to read what sort of views there are on both human exploration, which she thinks is important to maintain, but also the need for NASA to continue to support really critical programs in areas like Earth science and aeronautics as well. I know you’d like me to give more details on Mars, but that’s what she said so far.
And what we have for Senator Obama, as you all recall, President Bush made his announcement a number of years ago about his own administration’s long-forgotten commitment to extend, to take the next steps in terms of space exploration to Mars, and Senator Obama gave a response to that at the time, and so what you can do is go to BarackObama.com, go to speeches, search for “Mars”, and you can see it in his own words, how he responded at the time. What I will say is that he responded at the time with skepticism, and that skepticism has been validated in the time since.
Note: after the speech I went to the speeches section of the Obama web site. Not only is there no search function, I could not find (when turning to Google) any evidence of an Obama speech that mentions skepticism, or anything else, about the President’s space exploration proposal.
Later, Dreifus took questions from the audience (submitted on notecards rather than directly asked by people; the organizers said they got on the order of 100 questions on a vary range of science topics.) She did pick one question dealing with NASA, specifically asking Kalil why NASA was not included on the list of agencies whose basic research budgets would be doubled over ten years under one Clinton proposal even though, in the questioner’s words, “it is a small institution and a high-visibility program.” Kalil’s response:
It’s a $15-billion organization, so I don’t know what the questioner means by “small”. Again, Senator Clinton has talked about the need to increase support for NASA, in particular areas like Earth science and aeronautics. She has not made a commitment to double the NASA budget. I think one of the things that’s important to Senator Clinton is to be fiscally responsible, and to talk about where the money is going to come from to make all these commitments. So I think fine to say you’re going to spend $150 billion on this, $100 billion on this, but pretty soon you’re talking real money.
After the event I asked Kalil if the Clinton campaign had considered doubling just the science portion of NASA (about $5 billion a year, versus $17+ billion for the entire agency) in its science poilcy proposal. He effectively gave me a non-answer, directing me to the campaign’s science policy, which, of course, says nothing about NASA funding levels.
The event Saturday was billed as something of a prelude to Sciencedebate 2008, a proposed presidential debate focused exclusively on science issues (including space policy). That debate is scheduled for April 18 in Philadelphia, and Kalil and Ross were asked if their candidates would participate. “Time will tell” is all that Kalil said. Ross said that the invitation “is being given very serious consideration” by the Obama campaign, and will depend on the overall debate schedule.
In his closing remarks, Ross offered some advice intended for scientists in general, but also useful for space advocates. “Don’t be so polite,” he said. “If what you’re trying to do is elevate your issues, then you’ve got to be aggressive about presenting those issues… Whatever the key messages are that you want in the ears of these candidates, you’ve got to organize around them, and you’ve got to pound on the candidates.”